Questioning the ‘Fair’ in Fair-Trade

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SMU is currently in the process of becoming a bronze level Fair Trade campus. I found out that this is something the IDS society had become involved with and discovered that the process had already been initiated by Aramark. But what is Fair Trade? And why is there an initiative to become a Fair Trade campus?

Fair Trade is a campaign to create a market for ethical goods. The idea is that if consumers choose goods that are ethically, environmentally friendly and sustainably produced, that the market will have no choice but to comply with the demand; thus solving the problem of exploitation. The assumption is that when purchasing Fair Trade goods, the farmers are getting a fair income. This is the selling point of Fair Trade and why people pay more for Fair Trade products.

However, the results of Fair Trade are mixed and unpredictable. Although there are success stories from select groups, many farmers still live in poverty and some are worse off under Fair Trade standards, such is the case in Ethiopia and Uganda, as Dr. Gavin Fridell recently said in a talk directed at International Development Studies students. Farmers under Fair Trade standards have environmental and labour standards that they need to comply with. Any extra money that they may get from being Fair Trade is spent by the farmer on meeting the standards imposed on them.

It makes sense that universities take initiative to become Fair Trade campuses, as they are places that seek to educate and make a difference in the world. So, they do this because it is their “moral responsibility” as a university to make this change. In order to become a Fair Trade campus, it requires meeting a particular standard in which you then receive a certificate. There are bronze, silver and gold level certificates, each requiring certain amounts of products on campus to be certified Fair Trade.

The standard is a western invention, just like Fair Trade itself. With the standards created to appeal to the particular ideal of what is “Fair” for the consumer. These regulations are put in place by corporations or by the independent Fairtrade International. Corporations seek to better their image for consumers, rather than the lives of anyone working under them. With the bottom line of maximizing shareholder wealth, there is an incentive to do the minimum required to keep consumers happy. Even under FLO (Fair Trade Labelling Organization) standards, it is a market solution to a moral problem. Meaning that people will have to pay more and more to provide better circumstances for the farmers. Leaving Fair and ethical goods something only for the wealthy to enjoy.

To put it on the consumer’s shoulders to provide the market for ethical goods seems off the mark. Some people can’t afford these kinds of goods, does that mean it is their fault for providing a market for unethical and cheaply made goods? Should we knock on the doors of the poor and criticize their consumer choices? Are corporations not to blame because they are simply fulfilling their duty to supply the demand?

Fair Trade has become a title, and a reputable one at that. And although there are many issues within the world of Fair Trade, the assumption that it always makes a good difference remains the common belief. It is of course, the entire selling point of Fair Trade.

The reality however, as we can see, is messy and difficult. But this is the real world. And in terms of SMU becoming a Fair Trade campus, other than SMU and Aramark receiving a title that benefits themselves, there will likely be limited benefits for farmers producing the goods. Which was the whole point of Fair Trade in the first place.

Isaac Berry, Contributor

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